First lines are telling.
“I was born in New York City on a Monday” James Brown sings over a pulsing bass line in “Down and Out in New York City.”
“The Cisco kid was a friend of mine,” War proclaims in “The Cisco Kid,” followed by a funky harmony between a flute, sax and harmonica.
“I knew a man, Bojangles,” Nina Simone narrates in “Mr. Bojangles,” her singing voice lovely and deep: “And he danced for you/ In worn out shoes.”
Setting. Character. Action. These three songs don’t have a great deal in common, except that they were all written during the 1970s and they are all recognized as inspirations for St. Vincent’s forthcoming album: “Daddy’s Home.”
St. Vincent is in the process of a dramatic reinvention, both in terms of genre and aesthetic. Gone are the ethereal synthesizers on “Strange Mercy,” the wicked guitar riffs on the self-titled album “St. Vincent,” the quasi-pop vocals on “Masseducation.” St. Vincent’s sixth album, set to release on May 14, is a period piece — an homage to the 1970s and to her dad.
St. Vincent’s father was arrested for white-collar crime in 2010, and “Daddy’s Home” commemorates his release from prison a decade later. The album draws inspiration from his record collection — a lot of soul, funk and 70s rock.
These connections are crystalized by a playlist St. Vincent released on Spotify in early April: “Daddy’s Home Inspiration.” It consists of 19 songs, all written during the 1970s. To listen to the playlist from beginning (Steely Dan’s “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”) to end (Derek & The Dominos’ “Layla”) is to fall through a musical prism. The songs that inspired “Daddy’s Home” represent more than just a musical epoch; they are the sound of a generation, a culture cut loose from the 1960s but not yet thrown into the conformity of the 1980s.
St. Vincent’s foray into 70s rock verges on an act of word magic. The songs on the playlist seem to rise above the conventional boundaries of cause and effect, the lyrics stretching beyond their musical framework to touch real life events.
Nina Simone sings about the losses and little dignities of a vagabond musical performer named “Mr. Bojangles,” as if foreshadowing the years she would spend performing in seedy nightclubs in Paris after her career was derailed in the United States by the waves of political and cultural repression that followed the Civil Rights Movement.
Eric Clapton, from Derek & The Dominos, composed “Layla” to woo George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd — and it worked. James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City” describes a character in the film “Black Caesar,” who vows to make it big as a mob boss — and does. St. Vincent wrote an album about her dad getting out of prison — and he did.
The last line of a song has everything to do with letting go.
There is rarely anything left to be said that the listener hasn’t heard before, and yet the human ear is trained to wait for lyrical closure, to yearn for the final repetition, to demand to hear the most catchy part of the song one last time.
“My heart is like a wheel,” the Wings sing in “Let Me Roll It,” repeating the same simile over and over again: “Let me roll it/ Let me roll it to you.”
“Here. You. Come again,” Dolly Parton sings, cycling through the outro of “Here You Come Again” — “and here I go.”
Repetition is always fashionable. The music industry has reembraced 70s sound just as high fashion has brought back 70s style.
St. Vincent’s new aesthetic — the bleach blond hair, the 70s silk bathrobe, the green pantsuit and the grizzled fur coat — is reminiscent of another aesthete, Ada Leverson, who, in the waning years of the Victorian era, picked up a loved one from prison.
Oscar Wilde had been sentenced to two years hard labor for gross indecency, but he still had his wits about him:
“My dear sphinx,” he said to Leverson on the day of his release. “How marvelous of you to know exactly the right hat to wear at seven in the morning to meet a friend who’s been away.”
The tone Wilde adopts towards incarceration, release and wardrobe choice is simultaneously lively and defeated. Like 70s rock — like Nina Simone singing “Mr. Bojangles,” like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, like St. Vincent’s riddle-of-the-sphinx style lyrics, like the irony in the title “Daddy’s Home” — one cannot help but wonder if it is a first look or love at last sight.